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Q&A: Powering up electric vehicles with improved touch sensing

Battery health is an enormous concern for electric vehicles, and accurate battery data can significantly improve battery life and efficiency.

Mini Electric Concept at IAA
The MINI Electric is an all-electric version of the Mini Hatch that was launched in 2020. — Photo: © BMW
The MINI Electric is an all-electric version of the Mini Hatch that was launched in 2020. — Photo: © BMW

Automotive businesses are seeking improvements to touch sensing performance for electric vehicles, seeking to improve mechanical, electronic, and sensing system architectures with a new found priority on sensing. One company that has made significant strides in this area is SigmaSense. The company is involved with other applications where key data needs to be collected, such as in healthcare. These technologies are also designed to provide high fidelity data for artificial intelligence based object detection.

To understand the technological innovations and the future of sensing technology, Digital Journal spoke with Rick Seger, Chairman and CEO of SigmaSense.

Digital Journal: Can you provide a brief background on SigmaSense®?

Rick Seger: Troy Gray, our founder, is the inventor who originally conceived the idea to use concurrent bi-directional current sensing for detecting changes in electromagnetic fields instead of scanned voltage threshold sensing. He is an inventor at his core and has nearly 30 years in the touch industry. A few years ago, he came up with an exciting concept based on his innate understanding of how to interact with electron movement: the ability to manipulate and sense electron fields concurrently and adaptively.  From this idea of concurrent driving and sensing on the same pin SigmaSense was born. Troy’s genius plus a team of dedicated, exceptional engineers led to a sensing technology that achieves performance and breakthrough user experiences vastly more capable than what the industry has been doing up to this point.

We are now the performance leader in touch sensing technology, and we are ushering in the next generation of user experiences for a wide range of products. SigmaDrive®, a unique current mode sigma-delta technology, provides 100X to 1000X superior signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) compared with today’s systems at the same drive voltage and report rate.  The technology allows noise that is right on frequencies of interest to be completely removed. Each sensor channel has a dedicated sigma-delta modulator that is concurrently driven and sensed with adaptive software controls. SigmaVision® capacitive imaging technology utilizes an extensive array of highly efficient sigma-delta modules to deliver a superior user experience and new features. These technologies enable a new class of current mode ADCs for use within an entirely new generation of faster, more responsive, and engaging devices.

DJ: What are the key benefits of your new technology?

Seger: We are shifting the industry from voltage and time-based sensing to current and frequency-based sensing. The sensing industry has been stuck for the past 40 years in a voltage-mode world. The technology is too slow, uses too much battery life, is limited in the signal-to-noise, and its ability to adapt to change. Rather than transmitting massive amounts of data up to the cloud or into the system, we can be selective on the data we want to find, capturing the highest fidelity data from any analog system we target.

Channels are all programmable and can sense changes in temperature, pressure, capacitance, voltage, current, resistance, and impedance. Now, the presence of a hand, the movement of an object, whether it’s a conductive object or a dielectric object, all use a unique ability to see and sense changes in the electromagnetic fields. Our first product, a software-defined touch-sensing solution we call SigmaVision, is faster and more robust than current systems. Imagine a touch response speed on your iPhone that is faster and smoother, and now picture yourself in front of a 100-inch screen that you touch with gloves through a storefront window while in the rain.

We operate at ultra-low voltages, up to a thousand times lower voltages than what our competitors need for sensing in that same environment. The breakthrough means we no longer need high voltage signals to get above a noise floor. The benefits of ultra-low-voltage sensing are lower power consumption, longer battery life, lower-cost materials, better display optics, improved senor reliability, and lower emissions.

DJ: What type of work are you doing in the healthcare industry?

Seger: What are your oxygen levels? Blood pressure? EKG?  EEG?  We used to build disparate systems for every vital function we want to check.  We are experimenting with the different ways we can use multifrequency impedance spectroscopy generated from an extensive array of analog front ends with concurrent drive and sense. We can stimulate and sense electromagnetic fields with this new technology, allowing us to sense entirely differently. Using multiple frequencies inside the body, we can look specifically for the change in frequencies that we care about or the events we want to watch.

Concurrent and continuous e-Field™ imaging is the future of bio-sensing, with the ability to see the effect of multiple frequencies in real-time on the body and do that, at ultra-low voltages, over long periods. We believe this technology will deliver information that even the most advanced systems cannot offer today.

DJ: How can your technology be used in the electric vehicle industry?

Seger: Battery health is an enormous concern for electric vehicles, and accurate battery data can significantly improve battery life and efficiency. Despite the considerable advances in battery performance and cost-effectiveness over the past decade, the accuracy and robustness of “state-of-health” (SOH) estimates remain rudimentary. By introducing advanced electrochemical impedance spectroscopy on each cell, instantaneous impedance readings can provide insights into unstable cells and collect data on how the battery varies with temperature changes, even while charging.  As accurate impedance data is collected from large numbers of battery cells over time, precise models can predict the battery health under such conditions – leading to optimized charging, extended battery life, and improved battery efficiencies.

By introducing ultra-low-voltage signals into automotive surfaces, especially in the cockpit, we can measure the changes in the e-field generated by objects or our bodies. Sensing instantaneously and concurrently with our transmitted signal, our technology can measure movements and presence in the e-field space providing a holistic view of the vehicle cockpit. With SigmaSense, the nervous system of the car is now interconnected. All the systems and surfaces are sensing with timely and predictable responses. These are significant changes coming to the automotive space, whether it is the sensing in the battery, tires, braking system, or inside the cabin. Implementing software-defined sensing with high-speed response will forever change our interactions with all our machines. New user experiences will proliferate.

The critical change coming is high-speed responses to even the slightest changes in the electromagnetic fields around us, redefining the new Human-Machine Interfaces (HMI).

DJ: What trends are you seeing in the semiconductor space?

Seger: Recent semiconductor shortages have driven an increased focus on the importance that semiconductors play in all our lives.  Markets will drive semiconductor designs to higher efficiency, but more specifically to a renewed focus on more efficient processing at the edge. Better sensing data is critical for our devices’ “end-to-end” processing performance and ultimately determines the user experience.  Data starts at the sensor, at the conversion from analog to digital, and ends with the desired output or expected response.   Our silicon systems need better data capture, especially as AI becomes more prevalent. We are watching now as AI systems are at the mercy of the data we put into them.

Are we surprised by garbage in, garbage out? Identifying which data is to be processed, which data has the highest value, and which provides the best results will require high fidelity data provided by software-defined sensing systems that are adaptive and flexible.   We have nearly unlimited sensing data everywhere: flowing through our bodies, coming off a touchscreen, or inside our vehicles, including all the changes and movements of electrons through various disruptions and interactions. Analog systems are chaotic, changes are continuous, happening in real-time and cloud processing is not efficient, so we see significant silicon investments to improve processing performance at the edge.

Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Nvidia, and many others put priority on end-to-end processing performance. The focus on semiconductors delivering raw processing performance will not end. Still, the most significant benefits in performance and efficiency are now coming from silicon that enables better data capture.  Silicon enablement of adaptive sensing systems will win the new end-to-end processing challenge.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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